Matt Kenseth remains in the hunt for the 2014 Sprint Cup title, and he put himself in great position for this Sunday's AAA Texas 500.
The No. 20 car took home the pole on Friday at the Texas Motor Speedway, which is Kenseth's second of the season. The race track shared the victory via Twitter:
Heading into the race, Kenseth sits fourth in the standings. If that remains true after the Quicken Loans Race For Heroes 500, he'll be through to the Championship Round, but only just. The top four drivers in the standings advance, with those sitting fifth through eighth axed from contention.
Winning the pole at this stage in the season is huge for Kenseth to retain his top-four place. He wouldn't want to watch all of his hard work be undone with only a race or two left in the season.
Kenseth knows exactly how important these final weeks are after wrecking Kevin Harvick during last week's Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500. Harvick's championship chances suffered what will likely be irreparable damage after he finished 33rd.
Harvick had some choice words for Kenseth after the race.
"Yeah, he won't win this championship," he said, per Zack Albert of NASCAR.com. "If we don't, he won't."
After qualifying, Kenseth was remorseful for his role in the accident, per USA Today's Jeff Gluck:
I don't think it's something I'll ever feel better about. The only way I'll probably feel a little better about it or whatever is if he makes it to Homestead, because if he doesn't win a championship, at least it wasn't because of my stupid mistake. But until then, I don't know how much better I'll feel about it.
Harvick, on the other hand, remains indignant, per his comments, courtesy of Gluck:
That storyline only adds to the drama for Sunday. Given what's at stake, the race promises to be nerve-wracking from start to finish.
As for the other drivers, you can see the top 10 qualifiers from Friday below. The full running order is available at NASCAR.com.
|AAA Texas 500 Qualifying Results|
|Pos.||Driver||Best Speed||Best Time|
|8||Martin Truex Jr.||198.398||27.218|
Kenseth might have gotten the pole, but Tony Stewart made history. Stewart broke the track record at Texas, topping out at 200.111 miles per hour, according to NASCAR on ESPN:
Hermie Sadler tweeted that he thought 200 mph was unachievable at Texas:
Since he's a complete non-factor in the Chase, Stewart's accomplishment was overshadowed a bit by how each of the eight remaining Chase drivers finished. Gluck made it easy for everybody, posting their respective starting positions:
Jeff Gordon will feel unlucky. He missed out on the pole by a mere 0.001 seconds after posting a time of 27.096 seconds and a top speed of 199.291 miles per hour. Gordon is first in the standings, but the difference between first and fifth is only seven points.
The problem for Gordon is that he's never had much success in Texas. According to DriverAverages.com, it's his most difficult track. He owns one win and nine top-five finishes in 27 appearances and has finished with an average of 17.22.
The drivers in the most danger after qualifying are Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski, who will start 20th and 26th, respectively. They were the only two Chase drivers who didn't make the final round, per Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com:
Hamlin's in fifth place, so he's not in full panic mode just yet, but Keselowski's down in seventh place, 24 points off Hamlin. He can't afford to have a poor showing on Sunday. Unfortunately for him, only four drivers have won in Texas after starting lower than 20th, per NASCAR Stats:
One more race after the AAA Texas 500 remains before the Championship Round begins. The drivers near the cutoff line will be feeling the pressure this weekend. A bad day won't extinguish their title chances completely, but nobody wants to go into next week having to make up double digits in order to finish in the top four.
NASCAR wanted to add some more drama to the final stretch of the season, and that's exactly what it's done with the new Chase structure.